Feminism, Pain, and the Atonement

I’ve recently come across the troubling accusation that LDS feminists deny the atonement, expressed both in this post, and in comments in various places. A few thoughts in response.

First of all, I note that this discussion primarily focuses on negative encounters with individuals. LDS feminists are upset, it is so often assumed, because they’ve had negative experiences with priesthood holders. Obviously, this happens. But two points about this:

1) There are so, so many ways you can encounter painful aspects of the church—in scriptures where females barely appear, in a prohibition on prayer to Heavenly Mother, in temple covenants which differ by gender, in the historical and possibly eternal practice of polygamy, in the denial of priesthood to women, in the depressing fact that women are an “auxiliary” and not ecclesiastically necessary. The problems are much deeper than simply having a bad experience with one’s bishop.

2) Negative encounters with priesthood leaders always take place within a broader setting of structural inequality. They wouldn’t be nearly so fraught if this weren’t the case.

Personally, I’ve been incredibly lucky when it comes to priesthood leaders. If feminism is all about unhappiness arising from bad experiences in that arena, I’d have little reason to be a feminist. And the fact that someone has had to do x, y, and z to work through the painful experiences caused by imperfect people in the church does not mean that feminist concerns will likewise be resolved if someone does x, y, and z. This assertion, which appears all too frequently, fails to understand the feminist critique.

From the post linked above:

 Why do things upset us? Why do we let other things go? If we are continually looking for outside answers, we will forever be getting the wrong answers because that is not where they are found. Yet, we look for outside answers because they are easier than doing the inner work . . .

 I feel those at the heart of [the Ordain Women movement] have deep personal work they are avoiding. The greater the outside chaos created, the better it distracts attention from the real work waiting in their own souls.

Even setting aside the sheer audacity of presuming to know the spiritual state of an entire group of people, I see a problematic either/or going on in this framing of things as entirely internal or external. In our actual experience of life, our inner psychological world and our life in the external world continually shape and are shaped by each other. Personal pain always exists in a social context. So when someone reports that a particular situation is causing her pain, it’s both ungenerous and necessarily inaccurate to frame it as nothing more than an internal problem, as simply something wrong with her. In many situations, grappling with personal pain—doing that difficult work—involves being able to see the role played by broader social structures in causing it. (And notably, one could easily go the other direction and say that those who focus narrowly on the psychological to the neglect of the social have deep work that they are avoiding, as this distracts attention from the hard work of challenging injustice in the world.)

What if we lived in a society in which those who are left-handed were considered lesser, in which it was acceptable to discriminate against left-handed people, in which left-handers were denied opportunities based on their handedness? As a left-handed person, this would probably cause me some personal pain—in addition to having to function in a society which sees right-handedness as superior, I might well internalize the message and think that yes, something is indeed wrong with me. But an assertion that I’m only in pain because of my internal failings would be nonsensical. Working through and healing from that pain would have to include developing the ability to challenge the messages I was getting from the social context in which I lived. And even if I did reach a place of personal peace about the situation, I’d still have to deal with those social realities.

How does this all relate to the atonement? The accusation being made against feminists, as I understand it, is that we’re looking to the wrong place to have our pain healed—that we’re seeking for ecclesiastical change instead of turning to the atonement. Again, this is a false dichotomy. And while I won’t dispute the power of the atonement to heal pain from whatever source, it simply does not follow that if you want to change the things that are bringing about pain, you’re denying the atonement. Notably, the “why don’t you just turn to the atonement” narrative focuses entirely on healing pain, without also addressing the challenge of preventing it. But I submit that it’s irresponsible to only focus on the remedy, and not also do what we can to change the factors that are causing people pain in the first place.

Imagine that we’re in a room that’s gradually filling up with poisonous gas. The only way to survive is to wear a mask. It’s clearly important to distribute the masks as widely as possible. But it would make no sense to not also look for the source of the gas, and see if we can find a way to turn it off. By no means would such a move demonstrate a lack of faith in the ability of the masks to keep people safe.

The role of pain in feminism is a complicated one. I actually think we run into problems when we make things all about people’s pain—this can too quickly devolve into a kind of suffering Olympics in which the validity of someone’s assertions is measured by the depth of her misery. I think a stronger feminism asks whether our doctrines and practices live up to our stated ideals. (For example, if we are all children of God with infinite potential, are we engaging in practices that hold various classes of people back from developing that potential?)

At the same time, I think one of the important things feminism has done has been opening up spaces for women who feel deeply hurt by the church to share that pain, to have a place to be heard. I don’t want to downplay that. And surely one of the ideals we want to follow is that of reducing suffering in the world, which means that we need to take pain seriously.

In any case, I’m wondering whether at the core this is actually a disagreement about the atonement—because in a secular setting, I think we would all agree that the healing power of the atonement doesn’t negate the need to combat poverty or abuse or other things that cause pain. The disagreement, then, would surround the question of whether the church is qualitatively different from the rest of the world—whether it too can cause someone pain.

So how do we answer that question? In the end, I think we have to honor people’s experiences. I’m well aware that many, many women don’t experience the church as painful. But that doesn’t cancel out the experience of those who do. And the existence of the latter, I would say, is evidence that yes, the church can, and does, cause pain. No, not for everyone. Yes, this pain can be healed. But the accusation that discussing the sources of this pain constitutes a denial of the atonement is patently unfair.


  1. Great response, Lynnette. I really like your point at the end about the linchpin: is the Church qualitatively different from other organizations? It seems clear that for the MWS crowd, the Church is executed pretty much perfectly and reflects the very will of God, moment-to-moment. So for them, by definition, anyone who sees or experiences problems with it can only be doing so because they’re looking to be offended or denying the atonement or whatever other way they can say we’re messed up in the head.

    To me, the Church is so obviously an organization dominated by human error that I can’t even get into the mental space the MWS people inhabit, with their belief in prophetic infallibility.

  2. I admit I agree with a lot of what the post you linked to says as well as things you say. I see both sides. I actually really liked the quote from the post that said, “The greater the outside chaos created, the better it distracts attention from the real work waiting in their own souls.”

    Every time I’ve avoided the deep, soul searching “Is it I?” type questions when I’m hurt, angry or offended, I can always tell that I’m not in the best space. It sucks to dig deep and admit that I am part of the problem, not the church. Ugh.

    We need to look inside for help for pain and not point fingers at the Church as the source. People disappoint, both inside and outside the Church. People will fall short. We will disappoint each other. I just wish we weren’t all so hard on one another, whether feminist or more moderate. We see things differently, some see pain differently, too. People deal with pain differently.

  3. Lisa #5: that quote about chaos on the outside would work better, except feminism isn’t chaotic. It’s actually quite well-reasoned after millennia of inequality. As an LDS feminist, I have done a great deal of inner work of the soul in order to understand the stark and humbling realities of life as a woman. It takes a great deal of inner peace to seek equality where so many do not recognize it doesn’t yet fully exist, or claim inequality’s perpetual existence is ordained of God. It takes inner peace to be maligned and misunderstood by those who do not even try to understand, but only to put down those who seek to lift their sisters and daughters to the full measure of their creation. They tread clammering pools of disdain, never coming to an awareness of their own inner work waiting in their souls. It is through the atonement that we find the inner peace of going forth amidst such toxic rejection, and it is through the atonement that we find grace to heal the wounds received by our own people. Let us seek to understand more. Let us lift rather than put down. Let us be like Christ who lifts us all through His infinite atonement.

  4. It is through my “inner work” and my relationship with Christ (through His atonement) that I learned that I was worth more than what the church organization thought I was worth.

    And definitely yes, to your bringing out the difference between healing personal pain and fixing the institutional source of pain. They are two very different things and two very different kinds of work.

  5. Thank you for writing this.

    “it simply does not follow that if you want to change the things that are bringing about pain, you’re denying the atonement”

    So true.


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